Science - June 21, 2007

Students address conservationists

‘We were privileged to be able to bring such an important message to all those people,’ says Arjan Hassing, a Dutch student doing a master’s in Forest and Nature Conservation. He and fellow student Patience Mayaki from Nigeria were chosen to speak about nature conservation to more than fifteen hundred highly placed delegates from 171 countries during the conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Patience Mayaki (left) and Arjan Hassing talk at the conference.
Every two or three years, delegates from all over the world come together to discuss trade policies for endangered and threatened species of plants and animals. This year the conference was held in The Hague, from 3 to 15 June. A shadow conference was held in advance, at which twenty-four students from different Dutch universities debated about some of the topics which would also be discussed during the official conference. In the end, Patience and Arjan were elected by the other students to present the results to all delegates attending the official conferences of CITES.

‘I felt like I was being swallowed up,’ Patience says, still impressed at the huge number of people. ‘Yes, it was amazing.’ Arjan nods. ‘I was nervous at the start, but as soon as we got up there, I got over it. I was so proud of us, standing there and bringing the message to all those ministers and other officials that taking the right steps for a better future was in their hands.’

Elephants
‘Afterwards, delegates came up to us to compliment us on the content,’ Arjan tells. ‘They were touched by the message. Some even said we had set the tone for the rest of the conference by talking about mutual respect and really taking action.’

The students’ message might even have led to one of the most positive results, the agreement on elephants. ‘This was a very controversial issue,’ Patience explains. ‘Some African countries with healthy elephant populations have big stocks of ivory as a result of natural deaths, but international law prohibits the countries from selling the ivory, for fear that it might lead to an increase in poaching.’

For eighteen years there has been disagreement about what to do with the stocks. The students experienced themselves how complicated the issue is. ‘During the shadow conference we spoke about it for a whole day and did not come to an agreement,’ Arjan tells. The officials did reach a breakthrough, however. They will allow the four countries with the most flourishing elephant populations a one time sale to Japan only. Effects on illegal trade will be monitored and tradeoffs will go to the protection of the elephants and local people. ‘It filled me with joy seeing African countries unite with my own eyes,’ was Patience’s reaction to this agreement. ‘All African countries finally managed to speak with one voice for the continent. It shows a bright future for Africa.’

Politics
The two students witnessed the entire process, as they were invited to stay for the whole conference. This gave them the opportunity to meet many people, including the Dutch minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the Secretary-General of CITES and delegates from Nigeria. ‘It was interesting to talk to them and see all the delegates negotiating. Imagine all the microphones, people lobbying, making pacts and voting,’ says Patience. ‘It was great to sit back and watch the whole world moving around me.’

Both students have really gotten the hang of politics now. ‘I always had a passion for debating and finding international solutions for sustainable use of the earth,’ Patience says. ‘After CITES, I know for sure that I want to commit myself to ensuring a positive change for Africa and the rest of the world by working on an international scale.’

Arjan feels the same way. ‘Biodiversity is declining and we are treating the world in such an unsustainable way. I think international policy and negotiation will make a difference and I want to be part of achieving that counter voice by working at an international level on biodiversity. This CITES conference provided an opportunity: I absorbed as many views and information as possible. It was like a playing field where we could get experience and meet important people, which might help us in getting where we want in the future.’

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